Demonstrations were held in several cities in Pakistan following the acquittal of Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges by the Supreme Court earlier today (31 October).
However, the numbers were in the hundreds rather than the thousands that might have been anticipated.
And the son of the ex-Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was killed in 2011 for trying to defend Asia Bibi, praised the verdict as “a victory for Pakistan and millions and millions of marginalised Pakistanis”.
Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five who had been on death row for blasphemy since 2010, was not in the court in Islamabad when the judgment was read by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar.
The bench of three judges did not find the evidence against her compelling enough and overturned the earlier judgments by the High Court and Trial Court.
“It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’,” read the judgment written by Justice Asif Khosa, “but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”
In their 56-page ruling, the prosecution was said to have categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and that the evidence was flimsy and inconsistent, even a “feast of falsehood”, the Washington Post reported.
“The conviction, as also the sentence of death awarded to the appellant, is set aside and she is acquitted of the charge”, the judge said, adding that “she be released from jail forthwith, if not required in any other criminal case”.
They ended their judgment with a verse from the Abu Dawud, a widely respected collection of hadiths by Muhammed, which calls on Muslims to be kind to non-Muslims.
However, Asia Bibi’s defence lawyer Saif ul-Malook said that sadly he feared he could no longer live in Pakistan himself.
Asia Bibi received the news with apparent disbelief, according to the French news agency AFP.
“I can’t believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?” AFP quoted her as saying by phone from jail in Sheikhupura, near Lahore. “I just don’t know what to say, I am very happy, I can’t believe it.”
She has been in prison for nine years after she was arrested and then received the death penalty for allegedly making derogatory comments about Muhammad during an argument with a Muslim woman over the fact that she had “contaminated” a cup of water simply because she was a Christian.
‘Judges liable for death’
Following the announcement of her release, members of the Islamic party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and other religious groups gathered in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and other cities to protest the court’s decision.
A few days ago, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the chief cleric of this hardcore extremist group (also known as Khaatm-e-Nabuwat) in a video called upon his followers to come out onto the streets and be ready to die if the verdict of the Supreme Court upheld Aasiya Bibi’s appeal. The TLP chief, Afzal Qadri, said that all three judges are now liable for death.
Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who killed Governor Taseer in the capital in 2011, belonged to this school of thought. He killed Taseer for supporting Aasiya Bibi and opposing the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri has since become almost a cult hero for some Pakistanis.
However, both Khosa and Malook had been involved in upholding Qadri’s death sentence for Taseer’s murder.
Taseer’s son Shahbaz, who had himself been kidnapped by a group linked to the Taliban, hailed the judge’s verdict as “brave” and as “a huge step in the right direction for Pakistan” because it showed the rule of law rather than the rule of the mob. He also said it was a victory for his dead father, and that he and his family had always known Asia Bibi was innocent.
The Supreme Court judges had also received threats from extremist groups calling for mass protests and Pakistani Christians said they fear that Noreen could still fall prey to mob violence.
The BBC reported a lock-down in Islamabad, as there were even threats to topple the Pakistani government from those angered at this decision.
A Pakistani journalist in Lahore told World Watch Monitor that they were “witnessing lots of protests, demonstrations, and that religious clerics have called for a blockade. Protesters have been advised to attack the military, courts and the government machinery. It’s terrible”.
It is expected that Asia Bibi and her family will leave the country out of fear for her safety and as several countries have offered her asylum, said the BBC. Ahead of the ruling the TLP had warned that “if there is any attempt to hand her [Bibi] over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences”.
Following her appeal hearing on 8 October a religious group, the Red Mosque in Islamabad, asked the Supreme Court to order that she would not be able to leave the country as “Western forces are trying to get Asia Bibi out of the country but she should be hanged”.
‘A landmark verdict’
Asia Bibi’s husband and daughter who were in London two weeks ago, where they were pleading for her release, had warned that, were she freed, it would be difficult for her to remain in Pakistan. Her daughter said today: “I cannot wait to hug my Mum”. However, her husband asked for continued prayer.
A local Christian woman who has worked for Asia Bibi’s release shared her own relief: “She is free. We all feel we have been given wings to fly over this. To soar on this day when we were beginning to feel weary and when we can see the fires of hatred being set around us as protests begin on street corners,” she told World Watch Monitor.
“I am crying because, in all these years of living her story over and again, I have ached that this woman may not even know what is on her shoulders. How much she has meant to her people and the part she has played in raising the prayer profile of a nation often signed off as ‘failed’.”
“This is a landmark verdict,” said Omar Waraich, the deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International. “Despite her protest of innocence, and despite the lack of evidence against her, this case was used to rouse angry mobs, justify the assassinations of two senior officials, and intimidate the Pakistani state into capitulation. Justice has finally prevailed … The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities,” he told the New York Times
Last week, another Pakistani Christian was sentenced to life imprisonment for blasphemy, despite the fact that the young man, who was 20 at the time of his offence, has learning difficulties.
Of Pakistan’s 220 million population, about 2-3% are Christians.
At least 150 Christians, 564 Muslims, 459 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus have been jailed under blasphemy charges since 1986. Prior to 1986, when General Zia ul-Haq revised Section 295 of the Penal Code, only 14 cases pertaining to blasphemy were reported.